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The Magnetic Fields - Quickies Music Album Reviews

The sharp wit of veteran songwriter Stephin Merritt thrives in brevity across a collection of short songs that range from 12 seconds to an epic two-and-a-half minutes. 

At the end of an onstage interview three years ago, I asked Stephin Merritt about the Magnetic Fields’ song “The Book of Love” becoming a staple at weddings, including my own. After some characteristic quips, he turned suddenly serious, recalling how for all of the many marriages at which he’d been asked to perform the song, he’d recently been pressed into delivering the tune at the funeral of his longtime friend. He almost couldn’t get through it, he said, and has associated the song with that somber occasion ever since.
Merritt knows how context can deepen music’s meaning. “The Book of Love” benefits from appearing alongside 68 other witty yet tender tracks on the Magnetic Fields’ 1999 landmark album, 69 Love Songs. For more than three decades as a songwriter, Merritt has relished in presenting projects within discrete frameworks, whether group names (The 6ths, The Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes) or album concepts (the first person, the Jesus and Mary Chain, “folk”). This process seemingly culminated with another massive collection, 2017’s quasi-autobiographical 50 Song Memoir. After so much history, the brevity-oriented Quickies is a welcome reset.
These are short songs, from 12 seconds to an epic two-and-a-half minutes, sparsely arranged. Merritt was inspired by the ultra-short fiction of author Lydia Davis, as well as working on his own 2014 Scrabble poetry book, and, as he cheekily implied in an interview with Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, “record label preferences.” But short, even radically short songs are already the norm for the Magnetic Fields. Low-key production is also in character. And at 28 songs running 48 minutes, this album is not especially quick or lightweight. This is, blessedly, not the indie-pop laureate version of Twitter, let alone TikTok, let alone Quibi. It’s another Magnetic Fields album, and a fine one, freed from the baggage of a grandiose concept.

Because it’s a Magnetic Fields album, Quickies delights in subversion. Its first single, “The Day the Politicians Died,” is a macabre, one-hand-piano sort of party anthem, sung by the Magnetic Fields’ manager and longtime member Claudia Gonson, who deadpans, “We’ve got a taste for blood/So let’s eat all the priests.” On “My Stupid Boyfriend,” a duet between Merritt and another longtime member, Shirley Simms, sung over a whimsical instrument called a banjolele, a laundry list of gender-swapping complaints about their respective partners culminates in a darkly comedic death wish. In the barely-a-jingle “Death Pact (Let’s Make A)” or the autoharp-backed “Love Gone Wrong,” an almost goth-country dirge in which Merritt’s booming baritone recounts gruesome real-life examples of, um, strange love, Quickies finds humor in bleak morbidity.

Not all of the laughter on Quickies depends on maiming or death. The sole reference to the album title, the 45-second romp “Bathroom Quickie,” sung by Simms over accordion and celeste, juxtaposes Tin Pan Alley wordcraft and toilet-adjacent fucking. “Let’s Get Drunk Again (And Get Divorced),” which Merritt has said was inspired by his distaste for the Las Vegas wedding scene in the 1977 Martin Scorcese film New York, New York, is even more fun, and flips the classic Magnetic Fields wedding-dance format on its giddy head. Some songs, like synth-pop bad-boy embrace “(I Want to Join a) Biker Gang,” could easily have fit on 69 Love Songs.

The Magnetic Fields resonate so deeply for a devoted group of fans, though, because Merritt also manages to subvert his own detached artifice. Quickies, too, cuts to moments of real (“real”?) feeling. “She Says Hello,” another chiming, concise duet, presents an unexpectedly touching, slice-of-life anecdote about a tearful, intoxicated woman’s greeting. “Come, Life, Shaker Life!” is Merritt’s reworking of a Shaker hymn, joined by both Gonson and Simms, and on an album that’s gleefully filthy, its banjo-flecked prayer for purity is oddly stirring, like accidentally clicking over to Sufjan Stevens in the middle of listening to a CupcakKe playlist.

As with other Magnetic Fields projects, some deeper cuts succeed more than others. Still, any lows aren’t particularly low, though I could live without the cutesy rhymes on “Evil Rhythm” (“hypno-tithm,” “commun-ithm”) or the trippy first-person zombie-ant fungus tale “Song of the Ant.” The vinyl release, packaged as five 7-inch records, sounds exhausting, but it makes sense for diehard fans. And Quickies is the type of album that’s packed with little details for the particularly devoted, while also brimming with enough of the Magnetic Fields’ familiar charms to welcome those who haven’t yet found an entry point into Merritt’s increasingly vast discography.

Merritt typically writes his songs alone in a bar, but see him in person and there’s a palpable sense of community. To promote Quickies, the Magnetic Fields were scheduled to play residencies at smaller venues in seven cities. “Kraftwerk in a Blackout,” with its top-shelf Merritt pop-cultural references (not just Kraftwerk, but Star Trek, too), and inescapable melancholy, might have ranked among the Magnetic Fields’ best songs whatever crisis happened to be in the headlines—certainly, if there had been a blackout. As the song fades, Simms repeats, “Will we ever dance again?” The tour, of course, has been postponed. Brevity might be the soul of wit, but life is short, and, sooner or later, all things must end. From weddings to funerals. In this or any time, there’s something to be said for less context.

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